Two major Australian institutions are in the spotlight at the moment, the Labor Party at its annual national conference, and the media in an enquiry prompted by the Murdoch press’s excesses in Britain. However the deepest problems with them are rarely acknowledged. The Labor Party has become an obstacle to good governance and to a tolerable future for Australia. The media have become more superficial, divisive, and regressive, and they are eroding our open and democratic society.
Labor is very unpopular at the moment, but the underlying problem is that it abandoned its reason for being a generation ago. It is becoming widely recognised that Labor stands for nothing, and so is prey to wedging, bullying and special interests. Its membership is abandoning it, and all it can do is scramble for the ever-shifting centre of “public opinion”, ever vulnerable to being stranded. To keep up the charade it needs money and favourable coverage, so it prostitutes itself to whoever pays, or threatens.
Meanwhile there is far more that can be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for a modest national investment, but that would impinge on coal industry profits so it is not done. We could be developing energy efficiency methods and properly clean energy sources, and demonstrating and selling those to the world. Instead we are in an obscene scramble to sell more and more fossil fuels to the world, and driving nails into the coffin of modern industrial civilisation.
Any of the succession of Labor leaders could have stood up and argued that boat people are legal, small in number, no threat to us or our jobs, mostly valid refugees and, given decent treatment, generally become valuable citizens. By playing to xenophobia Labor only tightens the noose around its neck.
Mining companies trampled democracy and the Rudd prime ministership with a highly misleading TV campaign about the proposed super-profits tax, Gillard gave them what they wanted, and now other lobbies are adopting the same strategy.
Labor has not been prepared to stand up and make the simple, clear point that without healthy inland rivers there can be no healthy rural industries and towns. And so on: on fundamental issue after fundamental issue Labor pussyfoots around, terrified of offending a powerful sectional interest.
The problem is not just Gillard, not just Rudd, the problem is that Labor abandoned its core mission in the nineteen eighties when it adopted the neoliberal agenda of its opponents and set about privatising, deregulating and downsizing. At every turn these policies undermine the interests of ordinary people.
True, people have a bit more money, for now, but housing costs are in the stratosphere, working hours are much longer, jobs are less secure, people are stressed, families are neglected and the country is being hollowed out and sold off around them. Inequality has increased and the marginalised are suffering more. All natural systems are stressed and our children and grandchildren will pay heavy prices for our negligence.
Not only has Labor betrayed its constituency, ordinary people, it betrays the nation by occupying the leadership position but refusing to lead. The Liberal Party is worse. It has been taken over by extremist know-nothings who think the winner should be he who shouts loudest.
The commercial media are complicit in this abdication of leadership and responsibility. Media have always played to sensation and superficiality, and they have always had an agenda of self interest, but the emergence of attack-dog commentators and explicitly partisan campaigning takes these to new levels.
News is routinely grossly distorted by the relentless focus on extremes. Coverage of public protests, for example, typically portrays the dozen violent fringe, with pictures of damage or fire, and ignores the thousand peaceful demonstrators. Advocates of reform are thus demonised. Overall the media cultivate superficial slanging matches and division, intolerance and violence.
Privacy is abused for the sake of sensation and celebrity, as in the recent collar-bomb and Bali-boy episodes. Such abuse could easily be prevented by court orders without compromising free news flow and free discussion.
The venality of the political parties and the media feed off each other. It will not be possible to have better political leadership without more responsible media, nor better media without politicians with some vision and spine. We desperately need the hard issues to be brought into the open without the discussions instantly degenerating into hysteria.
Overcoming these problems while preserving an open society will be challenging. However our open society is already degrading. Freedom of speech exists mainly for the rich and the loud, and government serves the one percent more than the ninety nine percent. The more sensible politicians ought to be considering their options, which include forming new groupings and parties. Voters certainly need to consider whether rusted-on loyalty is serving their longer-term interests.
Some of the worst excesses of the media could be dealt with through regulation and oversight by the courts. However the underlying problem is the concentration of ownership, and the fact that their atrocious behaviour is profitable. A more substantial improvement would be to break up the big media groups, so at least there is a little more diversity.
A more fundamental reform would be to distribute ownership of each media outlet within the community it serves, requiring that no individual could own more than a tiny share. In this way neither moguls nor government would have such control over our political and social conversation. We have been foolish to allow them such power over us.
A generation ago Australia was a more confident, tolerant and decent society. Now we are riven by conflict, fear of each other and paranoia about foreigners. We need to acknowledge what is happening to us and identify the sources of our decline if we are to reverse the damage and salvage our future.